Now in its 100th year, the Reisterstown Volunteer Fire Company, founded on June 11, 1913, and one of the oldest in Baltimore County, has grown and changed with the times.
No one knows that better than Robert Murray Sr., who began volunteering at the company as a 16-year old junior member. Now, 33 years later, he is the elected fire chief.
"Some people join because of a strong family tradition," said Murray, adding that some of his forbearers served as firefighters for six generations, the last three with the Reisterstown company.
"Others join because they want to contribute to society. Or, they like the excitement of riding the equipment," he continued. "There's a lot of physical effort, which some people like."
Located at 108 Main St. in the heart of Reisterstown, it moved into its two-story home in 1949, and has built additions and more equipment bays over the years.
There are 34 volunteer and 25 career (the term preferred over professional) companies in Baltimore County. The volunteer companies belong to the Baltimore County Volunteer Firemen's Association, which works in conjunction with the county fire department.
In an arrangement common for county volunteer companies, Reisterstown is responsible for capital costs and the purchase of equipment, a considerable expense when the price tag for a new pumper typically runs $500,000.
Last year, the company's budget came to about $287,000, of which Baltimore County subsidized 38 percent in the form of grants and cost of utilities, maintenance, insurance and fuel.
As fire chief, Murray oversees 100 active responders, men and women, although he doesn't know the exact percent of women. For reasons he cannot explain, a sizable number of responders are single.
"We had 10 people sleeping over here last night," he said, describing the dormitory-style rooms on the second floor where a kitchen and lounge with big screen TV are also located.
The roster includes more than a dozen career firefighters from various jurisdictions who volunteer for free.
"It's weird, I know," said Murray, who retired as the captain of the county's Westview career fire company last year. "All I can say is, they love it. And, it helps with the shift cycle."
Unlike many volunteer companies that struggle with recruitment, Reisterstown receives a hefty 80 applications annually. A year later, though, only 20 percent are still part of the company, a retention issue other companies also face.
Murray cites a combination of factors — families, job responsibilities and work commutes.
"Members don't live next door to the station. They are scattered throughout the area, some as far as 7 or 8 miles from the station. That sounds close, but not if you hit rush hour traffic," he said.
Also, Baltimore County adheres to rigorous national training standards for career and volunteer responders. Level One Firefighter requires 128 hours of training; for Emergency Medical Technician, 164 hours. Extra hours are required for Medical, OSHA and HAZMAT certification.
Reisterstown's 100 responders are split among firefighters, EMT personnel and rescue technicians. In addition, there are over a dozen junior members, ages 14 to 16, who do not ride the equipment, and 80 non-responders who fundraise for the company.
John Wright is among the latter group. A retired businessman, he has volunteered at the company for 54 years, segueing from responder to fundraiser.
"Joining a fire company is different now than when I did," said Wright, a senior who divides his time between the company and the golf course.
"The level of commitment, training and danger are all greater," he said.
Murray and Wright are reluctant to talk about some of the situations the company has encountered. They range from the emergency evacuation of 100 residents of a senior adult facility to a 4-year-old boy who impaled himself on a molly bolt sticking out of a wall.
In an auto accident, a teenage boy collided with a fence. The fence post went through his neck, the ends protruding front and back.
"We kept his neck stable all the way in the helicopter to (Maryland) Shock Trauma (Center)," Murray said, noting the boy survived the injury.
Residential fires have become more dangerous. In houses and apartment buildings, material with a "higher load" — meaning material that burns hotter and faster — is more prevalent than ever. Adding to the danger, in these tough economic times it is not uncommon to find as many as a dozen people stuffed in a house designed for four to five.
"The den is turned into a bedroom. There are people living in the basement. It's tough for the firefighters to account for all the occupants," said Murray, whose company over its long history has tragically lost two firefighters in the line of duty, in 1928 and last spring when Gene Kirchner, 25, died May 2 at Maryland Shock Trauma Center after responding to a house fire on Hanover Road early on the morning of April 24.
Kirchner was one of the first firefighters to arrive at the blaze. He was later found unconscious on the second floor when a county response team arrived, officials said.
Resident Steven Starr, 58, died in the fire in which four other occupants escaped.
Reisterstown responds to 2,000 calls per year, split evenly between fire and rescue calls and medic/ambulance calls. In addition, since the Meadows of Reisterstown, a senior community for ages 62-plus, opened a few years ago, the company gets nearly 150 calls annually from that facility alone.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the company took only 100 fire calls a year, according to Wright.
"It shows how the demographics have changed," he said of Reisterstown's transformation from rural to suburban and of the increase in general of the senior population.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun